As Offred stands horrified at the sight of the salvaging wall, she strains to push aside her shock and substitute it for an emotional ‘blankness’. Whilst Offred is struggling to repress this emotion, she remembers Aunt Lydia’s words about how ‘this may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. ’ This statement reflects the true power of the patriarchal and totalitarian society of Gilead, in its attempts to suppress a natural reaction of disgust to an execution, and forcing it into a response of blankness and ignorance.
This portrays the alienation of the women, including Offred, in Gilead, since Aunt Lydia’s words suggest a cynical mindset – Gilead succeeds not because it makes people believe their ways are right, but because it makes women forget what a different world would be like, and so they have nothing to compare it too. Gilead belittles its inhabitants into believing that persecution and domination are normal, simply because it’s the nature of life in Gilead. Gilead’s dystopian world originates from its theocracy and the way in which religion pervades every aspect of life.
Biblical terminology, from the vehicles, shops, and roles in society, e. g: ‘angels, commanders of the faithful’; gives the state control over the strict sentiments and ideas that the inhabitants can express, stripping everybody of an individual identity. As a reader, we are as confused, outcast, and distant from the action, as the protagonist Offred is, because we are presented with an immediate unfamiliarity. This alienation originates from Offred feeling like she doesn’t belong, which is furthered by the language used to subjugate women.
Gilead’s men are defined by military rank and profession, in comparison to the women who are defined only be their gender role and ability to bear children. Furthermore, daily speech is controlled, and people are forced to continue conversations in lieu of the strict confines of the official sanctioned language of Gilead. Inhabitants of Gilead are compelled to guard their own speech for fear of penalties, and so in a sense, this subordinates their so called ‘power of speech’, to the power of the state of Gilead.
The narrative technique which Atwood adopts is one of a non linear fashion. As a reader, we are subjected to follow the temporal leaps of Offred’s mind, where we are forced to go where her thoughts take her. As a reader, I don’t feel like Offred is composing her story from a distant vantage point where she’s reflecting back on the past, like in Victorian novels. Instead, I feel that all of her thoughts have a certain quality and sense of immediacy, since we are with Offred as she goes about her daily life and slips out of the present and reminisces the past.
The narrator’s flashbacks are in past tense, simply to distinguish from the main body of the text, which is written in present tense. The language used when reminiscing is very fond and full of happy memories in comparison to how mundane she describes life as now, e. g: ‘not much sun today’. The language splits from being emotive to unemotive and repressed. When reminiscing, the description is so vivid that Atwood describes in terms of sense, including abstract senses such as emotions. Offred questions ‘what is normal? , and uses flashbacks to contrast the changes to how society once was, for example she thinks ‘I used to dress like that. That was freedom. ’
This in itself is a form of alienation because she feels so unsettled and alone with her thoughts that she can’t follow one thought for a long period of time, and also because all of the rules have changed and the restrictions imposed on Offred leave her left out from how things were. Atwood cleverly uses language to juxtapose meanings and convey hidden messages. Libertheos’ is composed of ‘liberty’, and ‘religion’ – which in itself is an oxymoron because Gilead’s strict faith cannot go hand in hand with freedom. ‘Men’s salvaging’ suggests ravaging, but also the executed peoples’ sins redeemed through salvation… however to execute someone, you are not rescuing them. Furthermore, the women’s names are composed of ‘Of’, meaning property off, then the name of the commander they are bearing children for. E. g: ‘Offred’ means property of Commander Fred.
Every time the women hear their names, they are reminded that they are nothing more than a piece of property, which adds to this feeling of not belonging. Offred states that she ‘would like to believe this is a story’ she’s telling. This interior monologue suggests that Offred is not recounting events from afar and looking back on an early period in her life, in actuality, she is describing the horror of Gilead as she sees it day to day. This quote shows the connection between her readers, her lost family, and her inner state.
In Offred’s act of telling a story, she feels like she is rebelling against Gilead’s society since it seeks to silence and pacify women, whereas if she speaks out, even if only to an imaginary reader, God, or Luke, she is defying the rules. Gilead may deny women any control over their lives, but in creating a story, Offred feels it ‘gives her control of the ending’. This subsequently gives her hope for the future, that ‘there will be an ending… and real life will come after it. ’ Offred’s only way of rebelling against Gilead’s totalitarian society is to deny them control over her inner life.
I feel like this starkly shows alienation, because she feels so alone in her thoughts, and that if she’s telling an imagined audience about her life in story form, this reduces her life’s horror and makes the oppression bearable. She thinks of her life as the story, and her as the writer – making it controllable, fictional, and not terrible because it’s not real. Alienation is also shown in the control of women’s bodies. Offred’s sex life, body, reproductive rights, and contraception rights are rigidly controlled by the male heads of the family.
A women’s sexuality in Gilead is dangerous – all women must cover themselves head to toe and not reveal sexual attractions. They are dressed in red nun like gowns, with white wings covering their faces; Offred stating that ‘I never looked good in red’ (her attempt of being humorous). This allows Gilead to have control over women’s bodies, also leading to control over women’s minds since they’re not even allowed to read.
Offred continually creates questions left unanswered, ‘What were they? , which shows her uncertainty and unsettlement within Gilead. Location which were once familiar, are now hostile to Offred, such as the road where her and Luke used to walk by Harvard University. Her room has an extended metaphor of a prison, ‘a window, two white curtains’, which conveys this sense of there being no escape – it’s like a government ordered prison where Offred feels trapped. Estrangement is further conveyed because as a reader we realise it’s the same controlling structures which ruled the gymnasium – Offred is still constricted.
A source of irony originates from the fact that Gilead uses aunts for controlling women by women, and appropriate persuasions of a women’s liberation in an attempt to control women also takes place. Throughout the chapters, Aunt Lydia’s voice continually rings through Offred’s mind, insisting that women are better off in Gilead because there is no violence or exploitation like before. This conflicts with the individual thoughts of Offred’s mind, and as a reader we know that there will be violence and unrest, and there is exploitation of women for their uses of bearing children.
The loss of Offred’s child is introduced, and it becomes a central wound on Offred’s psyche throughout, as well as a great source of emotional power. The memory is so painful for Offred that she can only relate the story in fits and starts – only murky details have been provided so far. I feel that Offred seems to draw on impartial and foggy memory quite a lot, perhaps because her distance is a product of emotional trauma – it’s too painful to think of the past. This creates a sense of alienation because Offred is without her child, and without the family she once hand.
The tone of the chapters is dark and often melancholic for the past which Offred has left behind. As a reader I feel that Offred finds refuge in her alone thoughts, but she also finds pain in her memories. A sense of fear and paranoia is evident, probably because Gilead is run by a vicious totalitarian government. Alienation also comes from women being defined by traditional roles – they have a function to breed, no identity, expression or name, and they are not free thinking (e. g: they have accepted greetings and farewells).
A source of alienation also comes from Offred as an individual, which is all in her mind with no actions. Her tone is sardonic and mocking, and she refers to outsiders as ‘them’ and ‘they’ – they are strangers, not her. No one is like her. Lastly, Offred’s alienation also divulges from the existence of her experience before the regime of Gilead – the flashbacks show this. In conclusion, Atwood successfully conveys Offred’s alienation and subjugation from Gilead itself using many techniques and themes, namely the deviation from the linear narrative structure, because this provides the flashbacks and the source of much alienation.